Wolves host Leicester in the Premier League on Friday night in a game that could shape the rest of their season. Win and they will be elevated into the reckoning as genuine top-four contenders; lose and those dreams can probably be put to bed for another season.
No Premier League team has deserved their winter break more than Wolves, and it came at exactly the right time. Following their stunning victory over Manchester City at the end of December, Wolves have won just one of their last six Premier League fixtures; fatigue has truly set in. Their season started back in July, and their much-feted Europa League run has meant they have already played 41 games – one more than Liverpool, who have played their kids for what feels like half of theirs.
But despite this overburdening – and assuming Adama Traore recovers from his dislocated shoulder – Nuno has a fully fit squad ahead of the showdown with Leicester. A squad revitalised and refreshed by the wily addition of Daniel Podence from Olympiacos in January; a squad primed to step over the top-four challenging debris.
Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester United – the bookmakers’ favourites for that coveted final Champions League spot – have only once all won in the same round of Premier League fixtures this season, and that was way back at the beginning of September. And as Ancelotti has shown at Everton, due to the incredible fallibility and inconsistency of these typical top six sides, any semblance of a positive run of results can quickly propel a team from mid-table obscurity to Champions League contention.
Man Utd, Chelsea and Spurs have all won in the same round of Premier League games just once this season, back in September.
— Will Ford (@willfordy25) February 11, 2020
Chelsea are stumbling under Frank Lampard, United have been crawling two inches forward and one back for much of the season and despite Jose Mourinho’s ominous ability to undeservedly pick up results for Spurs, the chance of any of them stringing wins together is no more likely than it is for Wolves.
Should Nuno’s side beat Leicester – who have lost three and drawn one in their last four – they will leapfrog United, Everton and Spurs into sixth place, and will be just three points off Chelsea in fourth ahead of the Blues’ vital clash with United on Monday night.
And Wolves are still to face Tottenham, Everton, Sheffield United and Chelsea in a series of six-pointers that could further embed them in the mix for qualification for Europe’s showcase competition, safe in the knowledge that they’ve already played reigning champions Manchester City and champions-elect Liverpool twice this season.
But there will come a point in the next few weeks – particularly if Wolves overcome Espanyol in the next round of the Europa League – when Nuno will have to decide whether to divide his eggs or stick them all in one basket. Does he focus on extending their remarkable European journey and settle for a mid-table Premier League finish, diminishing the prospect of another continental jaunt next season? Or does he bleed his stalwarts dry in the hope of dual success and risk burnout in both?
The result of this Leicester game might provide an answer to those questions. If they win, Nuno cannot ignore the mouth-watering prospect of taking Wolves into the Champions League next season, and the likes of Raul Jimenez, Adama Traore and Joao Moutinho will surely start every game, as they have for much of this season. This Wolves squad is still relatively trim and the Portuguese boss does not like to rotate those star players; his first team is still far, far better than those pushing from the bench.
If they lose against Leicester and get the better of Espanyol, the likes of Morgan Gibbs-White may find themselves facing Norwich at home as Wolves reluctantly put one basket down.
Will Ford is on Twitter.